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Statement by Mr. Jean-Pierre Hocké, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 7 November 1986

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Jean-Pierre Hocké, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 7 November 1986

7 November 1986

Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen:

It is great pleasure for me to address you today on this, my first opportunity to meet with a regular session of the Third Committee. I have greatly valued my informal and formal exchanges in the course of the year with representatives of member states of the Executive Committee and I welcome your comments in this broader setting.

During my first ten months in office I have come to value the essential role of Governments in UNHCR's work. A regular interchange of ideas with Governments is vital for my Office - both in order to develop the confidence that is indispensable for the smooth progress of our work, and to promote a common search for solutions at a time when refugee problems are acquiring an unprecedented degree of magnitude and complexity. I have therefore sought to maintain close ongoing relations not only with Executive Committee members, but also - through bilateral contacts and group meetings - with all Governments who have an interest in refugee issues and are present in the Third Committee today. My senior colleagues and myself have complemented these contacts by extensive visits to the field.

This is obviously vital, for UNHCR is accountable to the international community through you for the protection of refugees and the effective implementation of assistance programmes on their behalf. In our work I must seek your support and your advice as I attempt to fulfil the mandate you have conferred upon me, in an effective and efficient manner. Whether the Office is effective must be measured by our results; whether we are efficient by the costs of our personnel and programmes, and the result-oriented use of the resources placed at our disposal by the international community.

The nature of the High Commissioner's responsibilities have changed remarkably since the Office came into existence thirty-five years ago: in the number of refugees, in their origin, in the geography and character of the refugee problem itself. When UNHCR was established, refugees were largely a European concern. Today, everyone knows refugees are a major global phenomenon, often inseparable from the range of problems affecting the political, social, cultural and economic development of the Third World. These problems have all too frequently erupted into violence and contributed to a number of mass migrations within and between developing states, and from these states to the industrialized world. Out of a total of 12 million refugees in the world today, some 9.5 million - or over 80% of the global figure - have found asylum in developing countries. Yet they receive an exemplary welcome from some of the world's least prosperous states. Assisting these refugees to achieve a modest degree of self-reliance is an economic, infrastructural and human challenge for the international community as a whole.

At the same time the movement of asylum-seekers from developing nations to the industrialized world has led to a situation in which Governments who traditionally have upheld refugee rights are now reacting with policies determined by the imperatives of deterrence. It is worth pointing out that the numbers involved are still relatively small - less than 10% of the total refugee population of the world are found in developed countries outside their regions. Yet they cause concern. The concept of individual persecution, which underpins the refugee definition in the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, has been overtaken by this mass exodus across continents. Assisting these persons in the countries of first asylum in the developing world is essential, but it is not enough. The countries of the "North" must also share the burden of accepting those among them who seek asylum outside their regions, at least long enough to gain time pending the attainment of solutions to their plight. It is no longer sufficient for States to consider they have fulfilled their obligations by contributing generously to UNHCR programmes. I would like today to repeat my appeal to my Executive Committee in October: we need your collective political will to explore solutions to refugee problems and to accept to tackle the root causes leading to refugee situations.

This Committee has also been concerned, in the broadest sense, with issues of human rights. The universality of the problem of forced exile, which today spares no continent, no sub-region, must be confronted directly. Intercontinental migration, irregular movements, massive influxes of refugees - often provoked by such disparate, and often multiple, motives as intolerance, internal warfare, international conflict, violations of basic human rights, sometimes compounded by natural disasters or economic crises - constitute a global reality which requires a common approach and joint efforts in order to identify possible solutions.

What is this reality? The universal mandate of my Office incorporates successive General Assembly Resolutions, expanded regional definitions such as that adopted by the OAU and applied by UNHCR in Africa, and a variety of other regional initiatives. Given the variations of approach this implies, we must avoid getting bogged down in controversies over the definition of who is, or is not, a "real" refugee under today's circumstances. The vast majority of today's refugee and asylum-seekers who find themselves in developing countries do not always correspond to the formal definition. They belong to the wider category of persons, who leave their countries because of danger to their lives and security emanating from armed conflicts or other grave forms or violence or danger. That such persons are in need of international protection has been recognized by the international community through various resolutions adopted by the General Assembly. But there cannot be different sets of standards for different regions. The main criteria to determine the competence of the High Commissioner and the concern of States should be the existence of a nee for international protection.

In other words, we should interpret the law humanely and responsibly. I would suggest that this was already the case when the principles of 1951 were first applied, for after all, European refugees in the Second World War and the first turbulent decade after it, were recognized as refugees and resettled even though they were victims of violence and conflict and not just individual persecution. If asylum-seekers today are unable to show "a well-founded fear of persecution" but nevertheless have valid reasons for not wanting to go back home, they must still qualify at least for temporary asylum and humane treatment. In particular, refugees and asylum-seekers who are the concern of my Office should not be the victims of measures taken by Governments against illegal immigration or threats to their domestic security, however justifiable these may be in themselves.

In my view there is a large number of asylum-seekers today who fall into the "grey areas" - those who do not fully qualify under the international legal instruments, but who nevertheless are in need of international protection and a co-ordinated international effort to find a humanitarian solution to their problems, including the possibility, eventually, of returning home in safety and dignity. Once these co-ordinated efforts are applied uniformly they will develop into an agreed doctrine. Over a period of time this doctrine will permit the adjustment of existing law to new needs. In my view this is the most natural way of developing humanitarian law.

It is not, and it will not be, UNHCR's intention to assume responsibility for all the transfrontier movements of the present day. But when conflict and violence can be identified as being an obvious factor in the decision to flee, when human beings are made outcasts by their societies, when to become a refugee is the only way to avoid death, injury or humiliation, UNHCR cannot stand back and cite the Convention.

Concern, yes; indefinite aid programmes, no. It is vital that UNHCR assistance does not become an end in itself, serving to avoid the obligation to address the root causes of refugee flows. Instead, UNHCR assistance and the breathing-space it provides should be used constructively to pursue lasting solutions to the problems themselves. The fundamental responsibility here is that of States - and I know the General Assembly, through its Group of Experts, has devoted much thought to this complex subject. But UNHCR's humanitarian action in the field, by achieving even partial solutions can contribute to the creation of a climate for the resolution of more fundamental differences. In this vital search for real and lasting solutions, UNHCR stands ready to act with impartiality in respect of the needs of refugees, independence vis-à-vis governments and by avoiding at all costs to engage in controversies of a political nature - three criteria that constitute the only way for UNHCR of retaining the confidence of all parties involved in a refugee crisis.

In handling the immense problems of the world's refugees, UNHCR must proceed along two major lines of action. First, we must react to existing and new refugee crises with an approach that combines effective emergency response, the prompt establishment of basic services (health, sanitation, education), and early action in respect of income-generating and/or self-reliance activities that will, to a modest degree, put the refugees back on their feet. Second, and almost simultaneously, we must embark on a systematic and dynamic search for solutions to end the problem, so that the refugees need not be refugees indefinitely.

This approach is entirely consistent with the concerns about infrastructure and related development in asylum countries which have been voiced in recent years, most notably at ICARA-II. My Office will seek to reinforce the connection between refugee aid and development. One means of doing so is to further develop our co-operation with UNDP - with whom we are involved, for instance, in joint efforts in Uganda - and with the World Bank, which has recently extended its refugee income-generating project in Pakistan. We are engaged in discussions with both these agencies as well as other agencies regarding possible co-operation in a number of additional projects for countries affected by the presence of large numbers of refugees.

In many of today's large-scale influxes, where entire communities have fled, voluntary repatriation is the most realistic alternative to indefinite subsistence on charity. To may mind UNHCR must place the highest priority on voluntary repatriation, which remains the natural solution to any refugee problem. We must play our part by promoting conditions which could permit voluntary repatriation, by keeping alive the will of the refugees to return. It is the individual and collective will of refugees that is crucial to any effective solution of a refugee problem. No refugee who returns home after benefiting from UNHCR assistance should be disadvantaged in his rehabilitation by having developed a syndrome of dependence during his years of living on international assistance.

But where repatriation is not possible, or not voluntary, UNHCR must and will continue to attach equal importance to the three other solutions possible in these situations: local integration in the country of first asylum (the solution which has been applied in so exemplary a fashion in Africa), resettlement (the solution which has benefited from so many remarkable humanitarian efforts for Indochinese and Latin Americans for over a decade) and, until one of these is viable, a degree of self-reliance in the countries of first asylum.

I do not want to move from the topic of solutions without taking heart from the noteworthy progress we have witnessed lately in this area. Not enough is said about the spontaneous repatriations from the Sudan to Chad, Ethiopia and Uganda and from the Central African Republic to Chad, nor about the beginnings of repatriation from Somalia to Ethiopia, nor indeed about the return of Latin Americans from their exile particularly to Argentina and Uruguay.

This is perhaps, Mr. Chairman, the moment to offer you a brief tour d'horizon of the major developments in our work for refugees during the year. While 1986 witnessed a significant improvement in the critical refugee situation in Africa which had dominated UNHCR's work and that of other agencies in the previous year, a number of major refugee movements have continued to occur on that continent. The spontaneous repatriation to Uganda from Sudan to which I alluded has involved UNHCR not only in timely emergency action but also in enhancing our preparedness for the anticipated second phase of this process, this time from the West Bank of the Nile including up to 100,000 persons. I am also, of course, deeply concerned about the current tense situation in Southern Sudan, which could have serious implications for the movements of displaced people in and from that area.

The situation in Southern Africa is proving extremely preoccupying, as attacks by the armed forces of the Government of South Africa have affected refugees in this region, in particular in Zambia. One such attack partially destroyed the UNHCR-supported Transit Centre at Makeni near Lusaka and I protested in the strongest terms at such an assault on a purely civilian and humanitarian facility. This is a particularly sad illustration of the problem of military attacks on refugee camps and settlements, to which I intend, together with the Chairman of the Executive Committee, to devote close personal attention in the coming months, in consultation with concerned Governments. While still in Southern Africa, I must also mention that the security problems prevailing in Mozambique have prompted tens of thousands of Mozambicans to seek safety in neighbouring countries.

While programmes of assistance remain a major priority in Africa and will involve the expenditure of some $198 million in 1986, UNHCR is looking beyond the emergency phase which dominated our approach last year. We have renewed our emphasis on durable solutions for refugees in that continent and on programmes promoting refugee self-reliance.

The largest single refugee problem in the world remains that of Afghans in Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran. In Pakistan, we have made major efforts to shift the emphasis of UNHCR programmes from relief to self-reliance. In Iran, while many refugees have found employment in the local economy and are now self-sufficient, large numbers continue to depend on assistance from the Government. UNHCR is therefore planning a number of rural settlements as well as vocational training and income-generating projects for this group.

In Southeast Asia, while resettlement remains the main durable solution for refugees in camps, other options, including - where applicable - voluntary repatriation, are being explored. Meanwhile an increasing number of Indochinese "long-stayers" awaiting resettlement continue to cause concern. In paying tribute to the countries of the region for their generous record of granting first asylum to refugees, and in full recognition of their difficult situation today, I call for their continued hospitality while the complex search for lasting solutions goes on. The Orderly Departure Programme from Vietnam suffered a setback in 1986, mainly as a result of procedural problems; nevertheless, as of September 1986, over 113,000 persons had left the Socialist Republic of Vietnam under the Programme since its inception in 1980. I have just concluded some very positive discussion with a high-level delegation from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in Geneva last week and there are encouraging signs that the programme will regain its momentum. Further progress has also been made in the areas of rescue-at-sea and the Anti-Piracy Programme concluded with Thailand was renewed again in June.

In Latin America, an increasing number of refugees from Nicaragua have sought asylum in neighbouring countries, notably Honduras and Costa Rica - though simultaneously several thousand have returned home. The economic situation in the region has impeded the successful integration of refugees and returnees. We are attempting to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of refugee groups, particularly Guatemalans from Mexico. UNHCR is also extending help to those Haitians in the region who wish to return home, notably from the Dominican Republic.

In Europe, as I indicated earlier, asylum-seekers continue to arrive in great numbers, particularly from other continents. The increase in applications for asylum has resulted in additional delays in decision-making in may countries. Intergovernmental consultations with UNHCR participation are being held to discuss the problem and to find common solutions. However and unfortunately, some countries have resorted to unilateral decisions in order to control and restrict the admission of persons and asylum-seekers arriving without visa. This is a development which UNHCR is monitoring closely. Here, as in other parts of the world, only proper consultations with those concerned will lead to solutions.

It is of course a tribute to the international community that it has placed the resources at UNHCR's disposal to tackle these situations. I can only urge that it continues to extend assistance to UNHCR in relation to the needs of refugees and the demonstrated efficacity of our functioning. UNHCR still needs voluntary contributions to our 1986 General Programmes which as of today require some $45 million out of a revised target of $315.7 million. I hope these funds will be forthcoming and indeed will be matched by generous and early contributions in the New Year to our 1987 General Programmes target of $360 million. I am confident that the Office will not be deprived of the means of attain its vital objective - to solve problems rather than to sustain them. Contributions to solutions now will help avoid stagnation later.

In order to attain these goals I have sought to reorganize UNHCR's structure in a manner that would enhance its effectiveness. I have concentrated on what I consider essential to improve delivery of our programmes and services to the field: the assessment of refugee needs, the establishment of budgets, the control of programme implementation and the preparation of reports for internal and external use. I intend to continue to explore, in consultation with the Executive Committee, all ways of making UNHCR a more field-based, performance-oriented, better technically-equipped organization.

The new thrust toward acquiring specialist skills does not mean that UNHCR will henceforth do everything itself. Indeed, I reassert my commitment to improving - in very concrete terms - our co-operation with other agencies of the UN system. You are aware of the exemplary co-operation between UNHCR and the World Food Programme (WFP) which I intend to maintain and develop. I also believe that UNHCR's collaboration with the Office for Emergency Operations in Africa (OEOA) was of great mutual benefit. My Office has contributed actively to the conclusions of a Working Group which has made specific recommendations to ensure that the gains of the OEOA experience are retained and re-used in the UN system. We will make every effort to ensure that UNHCR benefits from a greater rationalization and co-ordination of the resources of the UN system, particularly at the two ends of the assistance spectrum - emergencies and development.

This is, of course, in keeping with the spirit of partnership that already governs that participation of governments and non-governmental organizations in UNHCR's work. The NGOs are our vital partners, in the field, and in asylum and donor countries, in implementing programmes, raising funds, persuading governments and sensitizing public opinion. I greatly have their role and fully intend to strengthen UNHCR's collaboration with them. This partnership, so vital to our success, would of course be impossible without the solidarity and involvement of ordinary people across the world today even more than yesterday. It is in recognition of this kind of support that the Nansen Committee has made the unusual decision of awarding this year's Nansen Medal for service to refugees to an entire people - the people of Canada.

May I conclude, Mr. Chairman, with a reiteration of the importance I attach to this, our first formal dialogue on UNHCR's new orientations in its efforts to serve refugees around the world. I believe that one basic right which the world's refugees should not be denied is the right to have their interests protected, defended and promoted by an efficient, committed and capable organization that has the universal support of the international community. In that sense I do hope that the tradition of support to resolution of this Committee regarding UNHCR's actions will continue to prevail.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.